New Internationalist

Ahdaf Soueif

Issue 337

The leading Egyptian novelist talks with Ros Weston.

Ahdaf Soueif, author of Map of Love, a romantic novel set in colonial Egypt, cares deeply about the plight of the Palestinian people. Her novel stimulated me to explore my attitude to the current Middle East conflict and to Islam. I discovered my limited knowledge, readiness to judge and my inherent prejudice.

Umberto Eco speaks about the power of narrative: it can change minds by allowing us to reflect, consult the truth tables, assess taken-for-granted know-ledge. Ahdaf’s feel for Islamic history and culture, the context in which the story unfolds, helped me to understand the Middle East. This in sharp contrast to the history I learned at school and authoritative Western media grand narratives.

I asked Ahdaf Soueif whether she deliberately intended her fiction to change and open minds. ‘I didn’t start off aiming to change people’s attitudes. My initial impulse (in Map of Love) was to write a story of High Romance, a “Desert Romance”, not spoofing the genre but taking it on. I wanted to create my own Romantic Hero but I wanted the story to be “real”, a story that “could have happened”. The politics and history came in, took over, as they do, I believe, in life.’

She doesn’t mind if readers don’t take on the deeper issues, accepts they come to the narrative with multiple points of view. She offers an opportunity and feels rewarded when they write to say the novel made them re-think their position. ‘These letters are the most rewarding of all.’

Western perceptions about Palestine, intifadas, the occupation and Islam are shaped by media narratives, revised daily. Adhaf suggests these can recycle prejudice without challenging it, they are formulaic. ‘Palestinians do something violent for no apparent reason. Then Israel does something violent in retaliation or to ensure the safety of its people.’ She believes this is neither just nor good reporting: ‘A good journalist should always try to tell the whole story.’

She is adept at realist narrative too, used it to tell the story of her visit to Israel and Palestine for the British Guardian newspaper: ‘Every single word described something that had actually happened or I had actually felt. I used the techniques of the novel, as it were, with myself as the narrator-character because I believe that these find a short-cut to readers’ hearts. They respect the reader.’

Palestinians have made progress in telling their own stories but many remain to be told. ‘I think the Palestinians have made it happen by taking to the streets and facing tanks with stones. Israel has made it happen by its brutality and arrogance. What I find impressive is Jewish people speaking up for the rights of Palestinians. That is a very difficult position to be in but the only honourable one.’

Palestinian suffering is, she says, everywhere. ‘Every person has a story worth telling, true stories from occupied territories tend to be stories of suffering and courage. The more of them Western readers can know the better.’

But she remains concerned about the future, especially the danger of a fundamentalist response. ‘As global convulsions get stronger and Western capitalism spreads, reactions against this in certain parts of the world will take extreme forms, sometimes clothed in the robes of fundamental Islam. It’s hard to predict where all this will lead, it’s hard to predict a hopeful outcome.’

Hope is crucial for world peace, Palestine, Israel and their future. If realist and fictional narratives are able to help prevent further bloodshed, fear, escalation of war, prejudice and suffering, then let us tell those stories.

Ahdaf Soueif’s Map of Love is published by Bloomsbury; Umberto Eco’s Six Walks in the Fictional Woods by Harvard University Press.

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